The prologue began with the relation of the Father and the Son, and now Jesus' first major public teaching in this Gospel begins with the same topic. It is this relationship that makes sense out of everything Jesus says or does, and so this rich passage requires special attention.
Jesus begins his defense by saying the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing (v. 19). He is completely dependent upon the Father. In this expression of humility, obedience and dependence we see the Semitic version of the ideal son, since a son is to reproduce his father's thought and action. He does nothing by himself, or more literally, "from himself" (aph heautou); his source of being and activity is not himself but his Father. He cannot act from himself, for to do so would be to exist autonomously from God. There is one who is autonomous, namely, the devil (cf. comment on 8:44). The Son is distinct from the Father (or he would not be the Son), but he is not autonomous.
More is involved, however, for Jesus is not simply the ideal son, but the unique Son, "the One and Only" (1:14, 18). Therefore, when Jesus says the Son sees what his Father is doing he is not saying that he makes rational deductions regarding God's activity from what he can observe in Scripture or history or nature. Rather, since Jesus is in the bosom of the Father (1:18), totally at one with the Father (10:30), he sees God differently than anyone else ever has (1:18; 6:46). While he is referring to his human experience, as the next verse makes clear, he has a sensitivity beyond human experience to God's voice, because his intimacy with God is unclouded by sin. This sight, then, refers to his constant communion with his Father, and thus the actions he refers to are not some special signs done now and then to illustrate what the Father is like. Rather, Jesus' whole life, everything he does, is reflective of what he sees the Father doing. According to this verse, such is all he, the Son, can do.
Jesus himself, who is the unique Son and who alone has seen God, is nevertheless the model of true humanity in that he is thoroughly open to God, humble, doing nothing of his own. The birth from above makes us God's children, and we share in something of the same sort of relationship with God through the Spirit as we see in the Son (cf. chaps. 13—17).
Jesus explains his relationship with the Father through a series of four explanatory clauses (5:19-23), each headed by the conjunction gar (variously translated in the NIV). He begins by saying he can only do what he sees the Father doing because [gar] whatever the Father does the Son also does (v. 19). Here the same unity of action is stated, yet it is not in terms of limitation (the Son can only do what he sees the Father doing), but through a mind-boggling claim of completeness. He does everything (ha gar an, translated whatever) the Father does. That is, not only is everything in Jesus' life reflective of God the Father, but also everything the Father does is reflected in Jesus' life. Jesus is claiming to be the full revelation of the Father (cf. 15:15; 16:13, 15; 17:10).
Next, the Son's complete revelation of the Father is grounded in the Father's own love for the Son and the fact that the Father has not held anything back from the Son. For [gar] the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does (5:20). The Father's love is the heart of everything. It is this love between the Father and the Son "that moves the sun and the other stars" (Dante, The Divine Comedy: Paradise 33.145). God's love for the world (3:16) leads him to send the Son so we may be able to share through the Spirit in the Father's love for the Son (16:27; 17:23). This eternal relationship is the source of Jesus' activity for it leads the Father to show the Son all he does. We see again in verse 20 that the Father takes the initiative; he is in control, and he is the source of all. This passage also emphasizes that the Father has held back nothing of his activity from the Son. All that God does is revealed to Jesus, and Jesus passes everything on to us (15:15).
Jesus' healing on the sabbath and his other deeds have amazed people, but he promises the Father will show the Son even greater things ("works," erga) than these (5:20). Jesus' desire for his opponents to be amazed is not due to any interest he might have in their acclaim—he does not care for human praise (5:30, 41). Rather, Jesus works miracles that, like the miracles of Moses (Ex 3), will make people sit up and take notice and recognize that God has sent him. But on a deeper level God seeks an amazement that comes from recognizing the Father in the Son, for the miracles actually reveal the identity of Jesus and the character of the Father. This amazement is a part of faith, as seen, for example, in the case of Nathanael (1:49-50): he was amazed, and Jesus promised him he would see even greater things. As we learn more of God we continue to be amazed. If we are not amazed by Jesus, then we, like these opponents, have not yet really seen him.
Jesus then explains that these greater works have to do with giving life and judging. For [gar] just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son (5:21-22). The Father has put everything into the Son's hands (3:35), including the most fundamental realities of human existence, the giving of life and judgment. These two activities are at the heart of everything Jesus does in this Gospel, and these verses spell out his right to such responsibility and power.
He has been commissioned by God as his agent, but he transcends that role. He does not simply commit to the Father's plan and faithfully execute it, as a good agent would do according to Jewish ideals (cf. Rengstorf 1964a:415; see note on 5:21). He is to give life to whom he is pleased [thelei] to give it (5:21). Jesus' own will is involved. While Jesus can do nothing by himself (5:19), he does have a will of his own, and the Father authorizes Jesus to act according to that will. His human will, however, is completely in harmony with the Father's will. So again we see the distinctness and the oneness of the Father and the Son. An agent might bring life in the name of God, but no agent could say "I am the resurrection and the life" (11:25). This statement, spoken by Jesus at the raising of Lazarus, helps us perceive the significance of his staggering claims made here in chapter 5. Indeed, the raising of Lazarus is one of the greater works that does cause onlookers to marvel.
The last explanatory clause (5:22) states emphatically that the Father judges no one [oude . . . ouden], but has entrusted all judgment to the Son. Jesus is given this authority because of who he is; it is part of his identity (5:27). Jesus is the light of the world (8:12) and the truth itself (14:6), and his very presence is a judgment on all that is evil and false.
In these verses Jesus' equality with God is revealed with the result (v. 23, hina) that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Here their complete equality is expressed in terms of people's proper attitude toward Jesus: the very same honor given to the Father is to be given to the Son. Again the Jewish idea of agent is used and transcended (see note on 5:21). An agent was to be received as the one who sent him would be received. But here God is the one sending, and no one sent by God in the Old Testament ever claimed equal honor with God! Unless Jesus is wholly and completely God this verse promotes blasphemy. Indeed, the last part of the verse makes the point even more strongly: failure to honor the Son is failure to honor the Father. Honoring God, which was at the heart of the Jewish religion, is said to be dependent on honoring Jesus as the Son of God.
This keynote section states clearly the scandal of particularity that some Christians find discomforting today. The complex language of these verses shows the struggle to guard the truth of monotheism while claiming that Jesus is God. The concerns of monotheists such as Jews and Muslims are legitimate, and this Gospel reveals that God is indeed One, though not in the way these other religions understand. This Gospel encourages monotheists to understand their truth in light of what has now been revealed by the Son of God about himself and the Holy Spirit. This Gospel, however, offers no encouragement to Christians who wish to say that Jesus is not the unique Son of God with exclusive and ultimate authority over every person on earth. All judgment has been given to him, and all are to honor the Son just as they honor the Father. John allows for no syncretism, for that would deny the uniqueness and exclusivity of Jesus.
The next section of the keynote address (5:24-29) deals with how the Son exercises these two divine prerogatives. The first two verses (vv. 24-25) mention a present experience of life and judgment; the second two verses (vv. 26-27) return to the relationship between the Father and Son, which lies behind this activity of the Son; and finally, the Son's divine activity in the future is referred to (vv. 28-29).
To give life and to judge are interrelated, for to have life is to escape condemnation (v. 24). The great events of the last day are already taking place (v. 25). The judge they were expecting has come surprisingly, before the final end of this age; the life of the age to come is already available. All of this is accomplished, Jesus says, in the one who hears my word and believes him who sent me. This phrasing again points to the unity of the Father and the Son. Those who recognize Jesus as the unique Son receive his words as having come from God and, accordingly, believe the Father who sent him. To know God is to have eternal life (17:3). Until we receive life from the Son we are dead (5:24), under God's wrath (3:36).
The hearing (akouo) Jesus refers to (5:24) obviously requires more than having been present when he spoke or simply reading his words in Scripture now. The opponents hear, but do not receive and obey. The Old Testament emphasizes God's giving of his word and the necessity of our attending to it; and these are the themes again when the Word himself speaks: The cry of Wisdom in the streets is heard by the wise and ignored by the fools (Prov 8). One greater than Ezekiel is here speaking to the dry bones (Ezek 37).
Jesus' grounds for such audacious claims is the Father's authorization of the Son (5:26-27). The earlier thought (5:19-23) is repeated with two new developments. First, the deity of Christ is clear from the fact that the Father has granted the Son to have life in himself (v. 26). That is, the Son himself is the source of life and not just an agent of God's power of life. Yet this possession of life was given by the Father (edoken). So again we have glimpses into the mystery of the relations within the Godhead and an emphasis on the gracious giving of the Father, who is the source of all.
Second, the Son's authority to judge, which also comes from the Father, is bound up with his identity as the Son of Man (5:27). Something of the meaning of this term has been mentioned previously (cf. comments on 1:51; and 3:13-14), but we encounter in this instance more of its complexities. Jesus' use of the term picks up Daniel 7:13-14 (C. F. D. Moule 1977:11-22; 1995:278; cf. J. Collins 1995:173-94), where the Son of Man is an eschatological figure who is given "authority, glory and sovereign power" and whom "all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped." There is no explicit mention of judgment in Daniel, but there is in 1 Enoch (for example, 48; 62:7-16; 63; 69:27-29, material from the first century A.D.), where the Son of Man is also associated with giving life. The Son of Man as judge is common in Christian literature (for example, Mt 13:41; 25:31-46; cf. Schnackenburg 1980b:466 n. 82). So Jesus is saying that if they recognized him as the eschatological Son of Man and if they understood this identity aright, they would know they were facing their judge. In passing judgment on Jesus they were condemning their ultimate judge and thus passing judgment on themselves. The irony of this situation comes up over and over in the story.
Jesus' claim to be the Son of Man, whom we understand to already be life-giver and judge, includes the expectation that the Son of Man will fill such a role in the future. If the opponents recognized Jesus for who he is, they would not be amazed that he is giving life and judging. The Son of Man's present activity does not preclude his acting again at the end of the ages. John, like the rest of the New Testament authors, believes that the Jews' eschatological timetable has become more complex with the coming of Jesus. Instead of the Jewish notion of two ages, this age and the age to come, Christians saw an overlap in these ages. The age to come has already begun while the old age continues on for a while. John emphasizes this inaugurated eschatology—the presence right now of the age to come—more heavily than any other author in the New Testament. But he does not reject the belief in a future expectation as well.
In the future there will be a universal judgment by the Son of Man (all who are in their graves, v. 28), since all judgment has been given to him (v. 22). This judgment is connected with life-giving (as in v. 24), which is described here as two resurrections. Verse 29 reads literally, "and they will come forth, those who did good things unto a resurrection of life and those who committed evil things unto a resurrection of judgment." This seems to suggest that judgment will be made on the basis of works. But the context has already made it clear that the issue is whether one hears the Son and believes the Father (v. 24, to be emphasized in the next chapter; 6:29, 40, 54). Thus we see again (cf. 3:19-21) that evil deeds are those which prevent us from coming to the light or, as here, from hearing the Son and believing the one who sent him. If we wish to share in the resurrection of life we should make sure we do those deeds that enable us to have faith in Jesus. We see in chapters 3 and 4 that an immoral lifestyle might not prevent a person from being open to Jesus and neither might a moral lifestyle make a person receptive. Nevertheless, once one is walking in the light it is clear that actions in keeping with God's commands keep us open toward God. That is why God commands them. That is, they are in keeping with his very nature, so to live according to their pattern is to open oneself to God. We are to walk as Jesus walked (1 Jn 2:6), obeying his commands (Jn 15:9-17). The first step of spiritual life is recognizing our need, which some immoral people may do and some moral people may not. The lifestyle we are called to in the Son is one of moral purity, in constant consciousness of absolute and utter dependence on God. "Apart from me you can do nothing" (15:5).
Having contemplated this future judgment we look again at the judgment Jesus exercises in the present (5:30). This verse repeats the themes of verse 19, thus tying this section together. All Jesus does—speaking, giving life and judging—comes from the Father and therefore reveals the Father. His life is entirely at the disposal of the Father, which is to say, he models true discipleship. The opponents are not able to "make a right judgment" (he dikaia krisis) because, unlike Jesus, they do not will to do God's will (7:17).
This verse rounds out the section and prepares for the next. Jesus judges by his very presence—the light comes and exposes. Since people judge themselves by their response to the light, Jesus can say that he himself does not judge or condemn. But in a sense Jesus does judge in that he draws peoples' attention to how they respond to him. By exposing their response he makes them all the more culpable. Thus, in what follows he will say that their rejection of him means they do not know God (vv. 37-38). He says this not to condemn them and harden them in their sin, but so they may be saved (v. 34). But there is something wrong with their hearts—they do not will to come to him (v. 40). It is not their will to do God's will, no matter how much they claim the contrary. Jesus will keep pointing this out in various ways from here through chapter 12.